If you’re anything like me, you might fantasize occasionally about having someone do your yoga for you. You would reap all the delight and benefit of the stretch, but with none of the awkwardness of having to heave yourself into a backbend. Just the thought of outsourcing yoga can send me swooning into Savasana.
Luckily, there’s a modality for people like us. Thai massage, often called “lazy man’s yoga,” is kind of like having a yoga butler—someone who politely but firmly steers you into the proper alignment of an asana and then gently extricates you from the ensuing tangle.
Historically, Thai massage possesses quite the pedigree: Legend says that roughly 2,500 years ago, Buddha’s personal physician, Jivaka Kumar Bhaccha, developed the technique, known as nuad boran. In the Thai tradition, practitioners still formally invoke Jivaka through prayer before giving a massage. Drawing on a combination of ayurveda, yoga, Buddhism, and Thailand’s royal medical tradition, a vigorous Thai massage offers the recipient rare depths of release—and renewal.
Like yoga, Thai massage relaxes and stretches sore muscles, eases tension, and improves flexibility. The massage takes place on a mat on the floor, with the giver moving the fully dressed recipient through a series of yoga-type stretches. But Thai massage is more than a private yoga session. It works with acupressure and meridian points to simultaneously energize and calm the body. The pace and rhythm of the treatment offers a chance to balance meditation with movement, so that mind and body become, at least for the recipient, as beautifully coordinated as bird wings. And in the exchange of touching and being touched—no matter which role you play—you open yourself to compassion. “When you work together, you can share the spirit and go deep,” says Hinori Ikeda, director of Thai Healing Art School International in Chiang Mai, Thailand. At the heart of Thai medicine (which includes Thai massage) lies the cultivation of metta, or loving kindness. The giver tries to tap into the spirit of “May all beings be happy,” a Buddhist practice designed to help decrease our sense of separation from one another. To massage in this way is to spread kindness, to tie one’s own well-being to another’s.
To facilitate a sense of mutual trust, make sure you have a quiet, relaxing space where you won’t get interrupted. Unplug the phone, and light some candles to set a peaceful mood.
Once you begin, the giver should take her time, be gentle, and listen. “The less expectation you have, the more you are able to sense about your partner,” says Yorick Jonovance, a teacher at Feel First School in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Both partners can let their breathing be their reference point as they head into uncharted—and often surprising—territory.
Rana Lee Araneta is a writer based in Mill Valley, California.
Thai Massage Tips
If you have an injury or chronic condition—or if you’re pregnant—work with a Thai massage therapist.
Use a thin mattress, a futon, or some thick blankets on the floor.
Wash hands and feet before beginning—for an added treat, wash each other’s.
Begin with poses on the back, then move to the stomach, and finish with seated poses.
Work on a woman’s left side first, and a man’s right (corresponds to yin and yang beliefs).
Wait two hours after the treatment to eat or shower.
Yoga Built for Two: Poses
Laura Yasuda, who teaches Thai massage in Boulder, Colorado, recommends six poses to ease you and your partner into this ancient healing practice.
Note: Instructions are written for the giver.
1. Lean-Back Nutcracker (quads—beginner)
Have your partner lie on her back. Bend her left knee, and place her foot flat on the floor, close to her buttocks. Kneel in front of your partner, positioning your knees on either side of her ankle. Interlace your fingers, and cup your hand around her bent leg, just above her knee. Squeezing your palms toward each other, lean back until she feels a gentle stretch in the front of her thigh and her psoas (the muscle linking the trunk to the legs), and her left hip lifts gently off the mat. Hold for a few seconds, release, then place your hands about an inch lower, toward the knee, and repeat.
Effect: Relieves sciatic nerve pain and lengthens the hip flexors. Do the next exercise (Knee to Chest) before changing legs.
2. Knee to Chest (hips—beginner)
Still working with your partner’s left leg, come up on your knees, and extend your right leg forward in a lunge, placing your foot to the right of your partner’s hip. Press her foot into your right hip joint. With your right hand on your partner’s bent knee, bring your weight forward to gently guide her knee toward her left ear. At the same time, put your left hand on her right thigh to encourage it to stay down. Hold this pose for three to five breaths. Repeat the whole sequence—beginning with the nutcracker—on the other leg.
Effects: Helps stimulate digestion and open the hips.
3. Palming the Back (spine compression—beginning)
Have your partner lie on her stomach with her feet hip-distance apart. Gently bend your partner’s knees so that her feet are parallel to each other and the soles face the ceiling. Using your partner’s feet as a stool, sit down, and rock your weight forward, placing your palms on either side of her spine. Keep rocking forward and backward using your relaxed body weight to compress the muscles along her mid-back.
Effect: Can help release muscle tension along the spine.
4. Cobra (backbend—advanced)
With your partner still on her stomach, kneel on her legs, right below her sit bones, and ask her to reach back and hold onto your wrists. Lean back, and lift your partner up into a gentle backbend as she inhales. Go only as far as she can bend comfortably. Hold for three to five breaths and then lower her slowly back down. This can be repeated twice.
Effects: Opens the heart, chest, shoulders, and spine; wonderful to combat depression and low energy.
5. Heart Opener (backbend—beginner)
Have your partner sit up straight on the floor and interlace his fingers behind his head. Stand sideways behind him, and cock your right hip so your whole leg supports his back. Take hold of his elbows. As he inhales, lean back, bending your left knee into a lunge and drawing his elbows back and up; release as he exhales.
Effects: Opens rounded shoulders, increases circulation to the heart and lungs. Particularly good for those who work at a desk.
6. Shoulder Palm Press (spine compression—beginner)
Ask your partner to sit cross-legged with his spine straight. Stand behind him, and place the heels of your hands on his shoulders close to his neck, fingers pointing down his back. Relax your weight directly onto his trapezium (the shoulder muscles), and work outward toward the points of his shoulders, keeping the pressure constant.
Effects: Helps relieve shoulder tension and promotes a sense of being grounded.